From Faux Homeopathic Remedy to Absinthe

I saw an interesting TV commercial for a product called TagAway, which supposedly remove unsightly skin overgrowths (those icky lumps of skin that just seem to appear out of nowhere as we get older).  The ironic thing about this product is that is is being sold as a Homeopathic remedy, but apparently contains actual ingredients.  These include, “Thuja Occidentalis.  Other ingredients include Cedar Leaf Oil, Melaleuca Alternifolia Leaf Oil, Ricinus Communis Seed Oil” * What is ironic is that nowhere does it say anything about the X scale of the preparation. From what little I could find about TagAway, it would seem that it is a “real” product, not just water, like “real” homeopathic products (making it a fake homeopathic remedy (a redundant phrase if there ever was one!).   I can’t verify much about TagAway’s real effects, except that you shouldn’t ingest it.  Buyer beware.

What does this have to do with absinthe, you wonder?  Both absinthe and TagAway contain Thujone.  Although modern absinthe contains Thujone in very, very small amounts (less than 10 ppm), it is thought that traditional absinthe contained more Thujone and that it was Thujone that was responsible for the supposed hallucinatory properties of absinthe.  It turns out that recent studies have shown that absinthe’s psychotropic effects are no different than that of regular alcoholic spirits.  The other thing that TagAway and absinthe have in common is that they both contain ingredients from plants and herbs, although, as noted about, don’t drink TagAway (the skin dissolving properties of absinthe aren’t known, are far as I can tell).  

What is really interesting about absinthe, at least to me, is that many authors and artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were regular drinkers of the stuff (there is a nice list of them here and here).  They sang it’s praises and even wrote poems, stories, films, and painted paintings dedicated to it.  There is a mystique and romance surrounding absinthe, something almost magical, from a vibrant and creative period of art history.  If you are a writer or artist like myself, absinthe is very alluring and compelling.  

Unfortunately, I have yet to try absinthe.  After threading my way from fake homeopathy to absinthe across the silky web of the internet, I certainly intend to try it soon.




The New Freethinking For Dummies Media Site

I’ve set up a site, the Freethinking For Dummies Mediasite, where I’ll be posting audio and video related to the topics I cover on this blog.

If you have any videos or MP3s that you think might be of interest, please let me know so I can post them there.

Time To Be A Dick!

A scant four days ago, I posted my views about Phil Plait’s Don’t Be A Dick talk at TAM 8. The upshot of which was that we need to engage people with civility, but there are times when ridicule is in oder. This, I think, is one of those times.

Today, I posted on Facebook and Twitter that I want to organize a vaccination drive in my area and requesting help to get it organized.

The only response I received so far was from one, Zack Wellington, of Brattleboro, Vermont, who, according to his profile, is looking for free-thinking canines to romp with. It’s too bad that Zack isn’t a free-thinker himself. He seems to have a very serious case of alt-med delusion.

There were three separate comments, each with responses. Let me give you the ensuing tet-a-tet in it’s entirety:

Jay Walker: I want to do vaccine drive in the Omaha, NE but have no idea how to go about it. If you know, send suggestions to

Zack Wellington: you are protesting vaccines? good boy! 🙂 LIKE

Jay Walker: Um..No.

Zack Wellington: sorry.

Jay Walker: Another reason to vaccinate, as if there weren’t enough already:

Zack Wellington: oh. oops. how about reasons NOT to vaccinate. more of those. Like autism, learning disabilities, brain damage…, not to mention contracting the thing you’re trying NOT to get.

Jay Walker: How about all of those things have been proven, time and time again not to be true? How about the thousands of children stricken with polio in the early 20th century and then vaccines came along and polio went away? How about the eradication of small pox and the millions of people who died from it before a vaccine? How about the three infants who died recently in California of whooping cough because the people around them hadn’t been vaccinated?

Zack Wellington: as Richard Bach said, “Argue for you limitations and they are yours.”

Zack Wellington: one of the great things about being “scientific” is that you get to focus on things you don’t want, sometime to the exclusion of all else

Jay Walker: Vaccinating saves lives. Not vaccinating cause avoidable death and suffering. Just ask the World Health Organization. Ask the parents of babies who died from whooping cough in California and Australia. Even if vaccines did have a risk of autism disabilities, which study after study have show they don’t, those small risks are far out weighed by the huge risk of death and disability when you don’t vaccinate.

First off, what the hell does, “Argue for you limitations and they are yours.” and “one of the great things about being “scientific” is that you get to focus on things you don’t want, sometime to the exclusion of all else” have to do with the point I was trying to make? What does that even mean?

How much freaking harm is going to have to be allowed to occur before people wake up to the fact that this anti-vaccination crap is just that, crap?!

People like Zack epitomize the credulous, unthinking, mindless magical thinking that runs rampant in our society. “Modern medicine is bad!”, “Vaccines cause autism!”, “Natural is good!”

I was born in 1960, at 28 weeks. The local hospital had just opened a state of the art NICU with incubators and doctors and nurses who were highly trained in the latest modern medical treatments. I should have died, and if I’d been born anywhere else, I probably would have. But I survived. I survived because modern, science based medicine had provided the tools, theories and training to save me. There was no shaman waving leaves over my head, no Wiccan priestess casting incantations in my direction, no priest with the last rights, just doctors and nurses who spent years in medical school and residency who knew what to do because science and critical thinking taught them how premature babies worked.

Show me one example of a time when an alternative medicine or natural remedy saved someone’s life. I’m not talking about eased their pain, helped them sleep or settled their stomach. I’m talking about treating their heart disease, curing their cancer, saving their freaking lives!

Of course they can’t show me. The trail of alt-med is littered with the bodies of those who sought healing in it’s magical, natural arms only to find out too late that it offered nothing but broken promises and squandered time.

I can show you millions of people who are alive today whose cancers are in remission and whose hearts and arteries have been mended by chemotherapy, radiation treatments, surgery and modern pharmacology, people who now have years more to spend with their loved ones and enjoy the gift of life.

I’ll end with Zack’s favorite quote, according to his Facebook profile:

“He is happy in his work because he is in harmony with his group and his emotions are flowing. He is free.”
~Natural Dog Training, Kevin Behan

You know, I wonder if he would have his free-thinking dogs vaccinated for rabbis or distemper? Somehow I suspect he would.

Have I been enough of a dick? Good!

On The Bedrock Of Ground Zero Should Be The Bedrock Of Our Freedoms

James Underdown at CFI wrote on his blog about the “Mosque at ground zero” controversy. In a piece titled An Immodest Proposal for Ground Zero, he suggests building the Center for Inquiry-New York on the site of the World Trade Center instead of an Islamic Center.

He says,

“As secular humanists, we don’t have to worry about the political correctness or the Constitutionality of whether or not to build a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple at Ground Zero. All those buildings would all be near the bottom of our desired list of buildings to erect anywhere. I don’t have to think twice about whether I’m being fair to Muslims vs. Christians, because my answer is the same to a Southern Baptist Chapel as it is to a Scientology Center: Better something else.”

I agree that it would be better to build something else as long as it’s not any kind of religious building. As a t-shirt I recently saw read, “9/11 was a faith based initiative”. In that case, it was the faith of radical Islam. In another part of the world it could, and often is, a different faith that is carrying out acts of violence.

He ends by asking,

“Wouldn’t it feel right to occupy that space with an organization that promotes the idea that we can rise above the animosity that caused it to be available in the first place?”

Yes, it would. But I propose that this organization shouldn’t be an ideological organization either. CFI does wonderful, important work in trying to make sure that all people are afforded the same rights and privileges. Unfortunately, even though I don’t think it is true, CFI, and other organizations like it, are considered by many average Joes to be linked with atheism, and therefore is, in the minds of many, painted with the same ideological brush as all religions or political organizations. This is a matter of perception, not fact, but unfortunately in our society, perception always seems to win out over facts.

If any publicly accessible building is going to be built at ground zero, I say let it be one dedicated to the study and preservation of that which our society was founded upon and which still makes great; a library and museum for the study of the U.S. Constitution.
This single document, more than any other in history, literally changed the world. Before it, freedom was something accorded to those privileged by birth or wealth only. After it, freedom was considered to be a right for all human begins. Freedom of, and from, religion; freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, the right to partition the government for redress of grievances, none of these things had existed, in law, for everyone, before.

This document gives us secular humanists the tools we need to promote our causes and perform our missions and is a most fitting tribute and memorial to those who lost their lives at that site almost 9 years ago.

It is a much better symbol of freedom and human rights than even a CFI-New York building, and a damn sight better than any mosque, church, synagogue, or temple, and something that everyone in this country can share in equally.

The Midwest Humanist Conference

The Midwest Humanist Conference was held at the Country Inn and Suites in Lincoln, NE on August 22, 2010. This is the first conference like this that I’ve ever been to, and so I was very excited. This was also the first chance I was going to have to meet fellow members of The Omaha Atheists.

I want to give you my impressions of all of the speakers and speeches. While I did take some notes, they weren’t particularly copious, so please don’t take this as a blow by blow report so much as it is what I took away from them.

The conference was kicked off by Jason Frye, the organizer of the conference. He began by highlighting the day’s speakers and then showed us a hilarious video call Jesus Beer.

The first speaker was August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists and a Camp Quest Minnesota Board member. His speech was titled, Humanity of Atheism.

He started off by saying that atheist should not be capitalized (unless, of course, it is in the title of something or at the beginning of a sentence). His reason for this is that atheist is a descriptor, not a proper noun. It describes a state of non-belief in any supernatural being, not a description of the person themselves.

He went on to promote the idea that humanism and atheism need to merge. In this way, humanism gains from the higher public visibility of atheism and atheism gains from being associated with a philosophy of high ethics and morality, something that it unfortunately lacks in the public perception today.

I found August to warm and approachable and he brought great intelligence to his arguments.

The next speaker was Greg Lammers, American Atheists Missouri State Director.

He began his speech with, “Once upon a time…” and went on to describe how every sixth Thursday of the month he goes to the Catholic center to meet with “Monsignor Scarface” where they have a conference call with the Pope so he can inform the Pope as to the latest going-ons of the atheists in Missouri.

The point, of course, was to illustrate that we shouldn’t just believe things because someone tells us they are so. He has a very humorous delivery which really made the talk very enjoyable.

His main point was illustrated by a quote from Proverbs 1:7:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”

He talked about how insidious it is that a religion would choose fear as its foundation of wisdom, giving some very humorous, but poignant examples of this (none of which I can specifically remember, unfortunately).

He ended by stating that he believes that the better response would be:

“Doubt is the beginning of wisdom.”

For it is through questioning everything that we learn the truth about our world.

After lunch, was the keynote speaker, D.J. Grothe, president of The James Randi Educational Foundation. His talk was titled, The Humanism of Skepticism.

D.J is a very engaging and well polished speaker who exhibits great enthusiasm, grace and humaneness to every subject he speaks on.

He began by explaining what, as he sees it, true skepticism is. A true skeptic is not someone who, out of hand, dismisses things that are improbable or on the fringe, but someone who is always open to all possible explanations and insists on questioning and testing all of them, if possible. They will then conclude that something is probable based on the evidence. But they are always open to new evidence that may cause them to change their conclusions. This is a very naturalistic way of looking at the world.

He stressed that, although skepticism has traditionally concerned its self with the investigation of the paranormal, alternative medicine, or just plain fakery, that in the past seven years or so, religious claims have begun to come under its purview.

He posited that religious claims, including the very existence of God or gods, should be investigated using the same methods as those used to investigate the paranormal, especially given that both claim supernatural causes.

He then tied this into atheism by saying that atheists should use the skeptical tool kit, as it were, to support their ideas. In this way, skeptical thinking can inform atheistic thought, creating a solid, empirical foundation for its conclusions.

My favorite speaker was Amanda Knief, cofounder of Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, Humanist Celebrant, and public policy attorney.

I was not previously familiar with her or her work and this was a fantastic introduction for me. She spoke about atheism in the workplace with emphasis on the legal rights of atheists.

I learned that atheists are protected from discrimination in the workplace by the same laws that protect people of all faiths (even though atheism isn’t a faith). By using several court cases as examples she illustrated how these protections came about.

She has a wonderfully engaging speaking style, strong, yet graceful and humorous. I came away highly impressed and deeply moved by her presentation. She is someone I’d gladly go to hear speak at any and every opportunity.

Dale Hilderbrant is a magician and mentalist. His topic was Psychics: Tricks of the Trade.

He did some neat tricks using exaggerated techniques to highlight just how the sham psychics do it.

During dinner, I found that he has an in-depth knowledge of magic and mentalism and has written several books on magic.

The next speaker was Darrel Ray, author of The God Virus. His talk was provocatively titled Religion: A Sexually Transmitted Disease.

He began by giving two examples that illustrate that what we in the west consider normal sexual behavior is, in fact, not normal at all.

The first is the Hazda tribe of Tanzania. These people have no known gods or religion. They have no concept of marriage as we would understand it.

In this society, multiple partners are the norm, with the woman being the dominant one in establishing relationships. All children are raised by the entire community. They have no concept of adultery or anything of that sort and a high value is placed on sexual pleasure as an integral part of their lives. Sexual pleasure is discussed openly among everyone, including children, who learn about sexuality and sexual practices from observing their parents and listening to adults talk about them.

The second culture is the Hawaiian culture before contact with the west.

Here again, we have a society where monogamy is unknown. In this culture, religion deals mainly with prohibitions on different types of food, rather than different sexual practices. Here, there can be different types of relationships; sexual relationships for love, sexual relationships for procreation, and sexual relationships for pleasure. In all of these relationships it is very common that a different partner is involved for each type of relationship.

Again, as with the Hazda, children are raised by the community. Children are not only taught, but prepared for their sexual coming of age by either their grandparents or aunts. The boys have their penises blown on from infants up to the age of seven, as this was believed to prepare them for future sexual relationships. The girls would, almost daily, have their clitorises pulled and stretched to make them larger over time to heighten their future sexual pleasure.

These examples then led into what Darrel called infection of The God Virus. The premise of this is that our concept of what constitutes “normal” sexual behavior in the West was shaped by the Judeo/Christian religions which manufactured prohibitions on various sexual practices and relationships.

He used examples from the Bible that showed that, in the Old Testament, the only prohibitions of sexual relations were for homosexuality and promiscuous women. We were shown that Abraham, David, Solomon and others were certainly polygamists, yet both Christianity and Judaism, beginning right around the time of Jesus, prohibit polygamy without any biblical basis.

He went on to show that it was early Christian writers and theologians who were both preoccupied and terrified of sex. This was tied very closely to a hatred and condemnation of women.

He then moves onto the New Testament. Here he relates that, to be called “rabbi” in the Jewish culture both in Jesus’ time and today, it was not just presumed, but expected, that the man in question would have to be married. About the only examples of unmarried rabbis are those that are widowed (my statement, not his.) Yet, nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus’ being married mentioned. In fact, none of the disciples are mentioned as being married, but we can conclude that some of them must have been for Jesus tells them:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple. “ Luke 14:26

Who, Darrel asks, removed or suppressed the mention of their wives from the Bible, and why?

He gave numerous examples from his years of practicing clinical psychology where it became obvious to him that married people, over time, because satiated with each other. In other words, they no longer find sex with their partner exciting or interesting and the urge to have sex with someone else becomes stronger and stronger until it tears the relationship apart. This isn’t a flaw with any of these people but a fact of human nature.

Satiation is a well established fact of human psychology that we can no more ignore that we can other feelings. He used the example of if you eat chocolate every day; you eventually get sick of eating chocolate. This is something I’m sure we can all relate to.

He goes into primary and secondary sexual characteristics. For example, primary sexual characteristics would be things like heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual.

Secondary sexual characteristics would be things like fetishes or other specific sexual activities that arouse us, for example pornography, shoe fetish, or a particular attraction to specific body parts. It is the pursuit of these secondary sexual characteristics that we spend most of our time and energy perusing, and therefore it is these that are often the cause of the stress and anxiety around sex in relationships. We often have been conditioned by The God Virus to feel ashamed or degenerate because of these desires we have, but everyone has them.

He suggests that openly talking with our partners about sex and, especially, these secondary sexual desires that we have is critical to a healthy, long term relationship.

He goes on to suggest that we may have to renegotiate our relationships to accommodate these issues, but strongly urges that we be open and honest with our partners. For example, if we feel the strong need to have sex with someone else, we need to tell our partner that and negotiate something that we are both comfortable with.

Jason Frye, the organizer of this conference, was the next speaker and his topic was Homosexuality & Humanism.

He covered the creation of the LGBT Humanist Council, which is an important step forward for humanists. He went on to stress, using hilarious videos, why LGBT issues are humanist issues, which basically boils down to the fact that LGBT issues are, at their heart, human rights issues no different than other human rights issues that affect people of color or women, for example.

I was surprised to learn that domestic partnerships lack over 1000 rights otherwise afforded to married couples, including such basic rights as the right to hospital visitations, the right to time off for funerals, the right to Social Security Survivor benefits, among the thousands of others.

One very astonishing thing he said is that most gay men are not allowed to give blood:

“Gay men remain banned for life from donating blood, the government said Wednesday, leaving in place — for now — a 1983 prohibition meant to prevent the spread of HIV through transfusions.

Before giving blood, all men are asked if they have had sex, even once, with another man since 1977. Those who say they have are permanently banned from donating. The FDA said those men are at increased risk of infection by HIV that can be transmitted to others by blood transfusion.” (Associate Press, Thursday, May 24, 2007)

This, even though gay men are not the highest HIV risk group. That sad statistic is held by Black Women, who have no over-reaching ban to giving blood. (Diagnoses of HIV infection and AIDS in the United States and Dependent Areas, 2008,; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The final speaker was Dan Barker, co-president of The Freedom From Religion Foundation.

His topic was titled, America Doesn’t Have a Prayer, in which he discussed the history of, reasons for and current status of their lawsuit against the U.S. Government over the National Day of Prayer.

This was a suit that was brought earlier this year to stop the President from declaring a National Day of Prayer, as mandated by a 1950’s law passed by Congress at the height of the Cold War.

The current status of this is that a federal judge in Wisconsin determined that this law was unconstitutional and enjoined the President to not issue the yearly proclamation, pending appeal of her decision.
The case is slated to go before an appeals court this fall.

The basis for their suit is that since the proclamation applies to all citizens, all citizens are affected, even those who don’t pray or aren’t religious as stated in the ruling:

“It goes beyond mere ‘acknowledgment’ of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience. When the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders, it encroaches upon the individual’s decision about whether and how to worship.”

He went on to describe how the National Day of Prayer was created by the evangelical religious right, who consider this their pet project and have a documented history of denying participation by other, non-evangelical, religious groups. He claims that the supporters would lose nothing if Government did not support the National Day of Prayer as they would still be able to organize and promote it, as they always have and continue to do.

The whole conference was a fantastic experience for me. Being new to the skeptical movement and humanism, it was wonderful to interact with everyone involved.

I wish I was able to give all the speakers as an in-depth review as I did for Darrel and Jason Frye, but I just couldn’t remember enough details to do them justice and I certainly didn’t want to report erroneous information.

I would strongly recommend anyone with an interest in humanism (and who shouldn’t be interested in helping their fellow human begins?) to check out the links I’ve provided. There is an enormous wealth of great information to help you get involved in a wide variety of different causes if you so choose.

Even if you can’t get involved, you can certainly learn some things that you didn’t know before. Sometimes knowledge is its own reward.

You can see pictures from this event on my Facebook page or my Mobile Me page. I apologize for the poor quality; I should have brought my good camera.

The event was sponsored by American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Center for Inquiry, Council for Secular Humanism, Humanist Association of San Diego, Humanist Community of Silicon Valley, Lincoln Secular Humanists, Planned Parenthood of Nebraska & Council Bluffs, Scouting for All, The God Virus, The James Randi Educational Foundation, LGBT Humanist Council, The Freedom From Religion Foundation, The Lincoln Atheists, The Omaha Atheists, The Thomas Jefferson Humanist Society

Coming Soon – The Midwestern Humanist Conference

I just got home from the Midwestern Humanist Conference in Lincoln, NE. There were wonderful speakers, excellent speeches and a lot of really nice people. I’ll be blogging all about it tomorrow. I’m tired after a great day so its off to bed.

When 99% Safe is Bad.

I’ve been reading about the Whooping Cough epidemic in California and a Polio epidemic in Tajikistan. These cases illustrate what can happen with vaccination rates fall off or are absent. As proof that vaccinations do save lives, I give you this report from Vaccine Central:

An outbreak of polio in Tajikistan has been halted thanks to vigorous vaccination efforts by 1,000 teams of doctors and nurses. The effort took three months to bear fruit, and was sponsored jointly by USAID and the Tajikistan Ministry of Health. The outbreak infected a reported 430 people, with 19 fatalities,  before it was brought under control. The most recent round of vaccinations was conducted on 15–19 June . Preliminary data report coverage of 99.3, with coverage higher than 97% reported from all regions and in the groups aged 0–6 and 7–15 years. Correspondingly, no new cases of infection have been recorded since June 21st. International travelers to this area, and other areas where polio is present, are advised to check with their health care provide to ensure that they are properly vaccinated against the disease.

You can find a more detailed report at

Polio is a devastating disease that often leaves it’s victims who do survive permanently paralyzed and/or forced to rely on machines just to breath. This disease has almost been eradicated, but keeps cropping up, invariably in places where vaccinations are limited or even suppressed due to fears of the vaccines themselves. Where vaccinations programs are fully carried out, the disease disappears.

To give you an idea of just how bad this disease is, in the United States, the 1952 polio epidemic became the worst outbreak in the nation’s history. Of nearly 58,000 cases reported that year 3,145 died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis.* The vast majority of those affected were children.

Smallpox is another disease that has probably been the largest scourge of human-kind in all history. Smallpox was responsible for an estimated 300–500 million deaths during the 20th century alone.** Through an intensive, worldwide effort, smallpox was eradicate, with the last known case occurring in 1975.

There are a lot of people, mainly parents, out there who believe the risks of vaccines themselves are greater than the risks of getting one of the diseases they prevent. Here are some Vaccine Injury statistics from 2009:***

Fiscal Year                 Total
2009                          397

It was projected that about 85 million doses of vaccines would be distributed in 2009. That means that out the 85 million people vaccinated, .000000467% reported side effects serious enough to be awarded compensation from the U.S. Government. That’s a 4.67 millionth of a percent! Assuming that the number of actual side effects was under reported, you will still need almost 850,000 unreported cases to get to even 1% side effects. That means that vaccine are 99% safe. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anything else anywhere with a 99% safety record.

Vaccinating our children is one of the safest and surest ways to ensure their health and the health of the population at large. To argue otherwise in the face of over 50 years of success in either eradicating or significantly reducing the numbers of serious preventable diseases is irresponsible and morally reprehensible.

Next time you hear stories of the dangers of vaccinations, just remember, the numbers, science and data are overwhelming against them.

* Poliomyelitis,,
***U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration,

The Christian Taliban

I read the results of The Modesty Survey and was pretty disgusted by it. I was going to write a blog about it, but I was so sick last week that I didn’t have the clarity of mind to do it justice. Fortunately, the rabble rousing PZ Myers did it for me (well not for me personally, I am pretty sure he has no idea who I am).

My favorite line of his about this survey sums up my feelings pretty well:

“What they have to guard against? They should be plainer. “We’re not telling you what to wear — we’re just listing the stuff that will justify raping you.””

Read both his blog post and the original survey. It’s pretty scary how similar the Islamic Taliban and Christian Fundamentalist ideologies really are.

Are We Free Agents or Biological Computer Programs? And Does It Really Matter?

I read an interesting article that seems to show that our brains unconsciously make decisions before we are conscious of it. Some have called it the “free will” experiment and claim that it calls into question the existence of free will.

The study:

“…recorded activity in various parts of the brain. Then the subjects were presented with a computer screen on which a letter of the alphabet was flashed; these images changed every half second. They also had two buttons, one under the index finger of each hand.

The subjects were asked to press a button with either hand, and also to remember the letter that was on the screen at the moment when they decided which button to press. (They indicated this letter by pressing another button.) Button presses took place about every 22 seconds, and left and right buttons were pressed with equal frequency. At the same time, the MRI showed the location of brain activity, which could be correlated with which button was subsequently pressed.

Here’s the surprising result: the brain activity that predicted which button would be pressed began a full seven seconds before the subject was conscious of his decision to press the left or right button. The authors note, too, that there is a delay of three seconds before the MRI records neural activity since the machine detects blood oxygenation. Taking this into account, neuronal activity predicting which button would be pressed began about ten seconds before a conscious decision was made.”

This indicates that an unconscious decision was made of which button to press before the person had consciously decided which one to press.

The problem that this brings up for many people who I’ve seen comment on this study is that this indicates that we don’t have free will in making decisions. While this may seem to be the case, I think that there are some real problems in concluding this from the results given.

In the case of this study, subjects were required to make arbitrary decisions in quick succession. It would seem to me that this would give very little time for any real thought about the decision needing to be made. It is more of a split-second decision, rather than a reasoned decision.

This is an important distinction because when most of use talk about free will as it relates to decision making, we are usually talking about decisions which have a real effect on us or others.

I’ll use the following analogy.

You are walking into a building. You open the door and as you do so you sense someone coming behind you. Normally, you become consciously aware of someone behind you and you hold the door for them.

But if you are distracted, either by something around you or something on your mind, you may still be aware of someone behind you, but it hasn’t really registered consciously and so you end up not holding the door. You weren’t being rude. In this case, you didn’t really make a conscious decision not to hold the door, you just weren’t aware enough of the person behind you to be able to consciously decide to hold the door.

But, if you had been consciously aware of the person behind you and made a conscious not to hold the door, then in this case you were being rude.

I think it is in these situations where decisions have social, personal or moral effects that the whole idea of free will becomes important. The response of pressing buttons to correspond to letters appearing on a screen seems to me to be more along the lines of an innate reaction or instinct, closer to the way we put out our hands when we trip and fall. Yes, our brains have made a decision, but it isn’t much of a conscious one.

Of course, I’m not a clinical scientist, or a scientists of any kind, so I really can’t speak to the scientific implications of this particular study. What I’m concerned with here is how people and the press are interpreting these results.

We need to resist the urge to make bold claims based on results from one study. There are so many factors that need to be taken into account here that to claim that this one study shows that we have no free will is irresponsible.

Personally, I find the results of the study fascinating and I would love to see more studies along these lines, especially focusing on more complicated decision making, those kinds of decisions that require a conscious thought process to make.

Perhaps studies will eventually show that we, including the decisions we make, are no more than evolutionarily motivated machines reacting to programming deep within our genes. That everything we do is guided by selfish genes that act for their own preservation and propagation, and that free will is just the peculiar perception that our minds use to make sense of the world around us.

I tend to doubt that, but maybe I’m just engaging in wishful thinking. Either way, it really doesn’t change how we do things or how we perceive things, but it does make things much interesting and fun!